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ISSUE 121 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/9/2008

English Language Dissected

By Lyndel Owens
Variety Editor

Friday, May 9, 2008

This Tuesday, the 21 students of the English Language and Linguistics class held a "language museum" in Buntrock Commons 144. They presented poster boards and elaborate presentations as the culmination of research the class had done throughout the semester.

Professor Louis Janus said he thought of the display to "make language more personal" making his student's work accessible to the college community.

Throughout the semester, students studied the basics of the English language syntax and pronunciation, how language is acquired and traced causes of change in the language. Topics included an examination of apostrophe use, naming traditions at St. Olaf, the work of communication specialist Deborah Tannen and how sports announcers work in pairs.

Organized as a survey of the students' final work, the event encouraged people to recognize and respect the inherent diversity within language and within the discipline of linguistics.

Because of the wide focus, participant Liz Whitt '10 was unfamiliar but delighted with all of her peers' research.

"You can focus on the one thing you found really interesting, then look at what others found interesting," she said.

"So far I'm really impressed with the breadth of the topics chosen and the depth of the research presented," Janus said.

The posters' diverse subject matter was telling of the difference the projects that made each distinct. Yet, all of the work explored seemingly obvious phenomena in language such as cognates or slang.

These assumed aspects of language are crucial to understand because they animate our daily lives and exchanges, but are often under-examined.

Janus, a trained linguist and Norwegian professor, believes it is incumbent on the linguist to "make people aware of what they know intuitively".

Ultimately, it increases people's awareness of the language and implications of its many uses, helping people understand themselves and their greater society more fully.

"When you think about language you don't really think about something tangible. You think about something more abstract and fluid," Brittany Gilje '10 said. "There is a post-modern element of using language to define language. It's so integral to what we're doing in the class."

Students engaged this responsibility through their posters and discussion with curious people throughout parts of the day. Whitt and Gilje were in the museum during most of the day.

They partnered to examine the psychological use of French-English cognates among skilled and unskilled bilingual speakers and how those specific words can best be taught to students unfamiliar with either language.

Cognates, said Whitt, are "words written the same and could sound the same and mean the same thing." False cognates are words that share these attributes but have different meanings.

Gilje spoke first and used a power-point to explain how more proficient bilingual speakers take a longer time to process cognates because they engage the concept connected with the word. Less proficient speakers, on the other hand, more or less assign the word its meaning in the other language.

According to Gilje, who primarily utilized the research of Carolyn Gascoigne, the less skilled speaker would be more likely to translate this word into its English meaning.

Conversely, the more skilled speaker would take a few moments to consider the concept referred to, and then translate. Though slower, this process yields a more precise and accurate translation.

Whitt then discussed the pedagogical puzzle that cognates pose. She is concerned with proper teaching methods because false cognates often tend to jeopardize learners of a new language, and especially young students who may not be able to understand psychological retrieval mechanisms.

Whitt believes that understanding the many nuances of language acquisition and processing are crucially important for those, like herself, who aspire to be foreign language teachers.

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